Orman makes governor's race a 3-way contest, to the advantage of Republicans
Greg Orman stepped into the 2018 governor's race Wednesday as an independent, banking on the idea that voters have become disenchanted with the two main political parties.
Orman, readers will recall, is the Johnson County businessman who ran a strong challenge against Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014. But that was a race in which the Democratic candidate, Chad Taylor, bowed out in what appeared to be a coordinated effort with Orman to prevent Republicans from winning a Senate majority. It didn't work, and Orman ended up losing the race by more than a 10-point margin.
And to be precise, Orman has taken only the first step toward getting into the governor's race by forming an exploratory committee and appointing a campaign treasurer so he can begin raising money.
But political experts in Kansas say if he does get in the race, it's unlikely that he can break the grip that the Democratic and Republican parties have on the vast majority of voters in the state, and his candidacy would likely give Republicans an edge that they might not have otherwise.
"If you look at when Democrats and Republicans do their absolute worst in Kansas elections, it looks like about three-fourths of Kansas voters are solidly party voters. They’re going to vote for that Democrat or Republican, seemingly because their name is on the ballot," University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller said Wednesday in a phone interview.
In any given statewide race in Kansas, he said, any given Republican candidate has a lock on about 40 percent of the vote. That's how much Republican Jim Barnett received in 2006 when he ran for governor against Kathleen Sebelius. And any given Democrat can count on 30-35 percent, roughly the amount Sen. Tom Holland got when he ran for governor in 2010 against Sam Brownback.
"So his first task is to own that other 25 percent," he said, "which is difficult because most of those people lean to a party. It’s also difficult because your truest independents are also the least politically knowledgeable, they care the least about politics and they’re the least likely to vote. His most natural constituency is the most tuned out."
The next task, Miller said, is for Orman to peel away votes from both the Democratic and Republican candidates, whoever they turn out to be. But his performance in 2014 shows that he is more likely to peel away votes from Democrats than Republicans.
"It was basically a small version of Paul Davis’ run for governor," he said. "If you look at the precinct-level results and the exit polls, it didn’t appear that he had a really unique constituency that wasn’t already voting for Paul Davis."
Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, agreed.
"In my mind there’s no question but that the votes he got against Pat Roberts in 2014 were mostly Democratic votes, with a smattering of independents and moderate Republicans," he said.
According to Smith, and many others, Secretary of State Kris Kobach is currently the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination, although Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer could have the power of incumbency, assuming he is elevated to the governor's office before the Aug. 7 primary.
Democrats would likely be happy with either one, because Colyer will be saddled with all the political baggage of the Brownback administration, and, according to polls, Kobach is seen as a highly divisive figure who may have a hard time winning support from independents and moderate Republicans —although, to be fair, people have said that about him going into each of the last two statewide elections that he ended up winning.
So far, three major Democrats have announced plans to run: former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer; former Rep. Josh Svaty, of Ellsworth, and House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, the only one in the group who currently holds elected office.
There are, of course, a number of other candidates in the GOP race. But in any circumstance, Democrats will be trying to put together the same kind of coalition with independents and moderate Republicans that carried Sebelius into the governor's office in 2002 and 2006. And Orman's entry into the race makes that more difficult, Miller said, because he can easily be portrayed as a Democrat in disguise.
"He is the only candidate in the race who donated to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Al Franken, and has a history of support from the Democratic Party," Miller said. "And Pat Roberts spent a lot of money spreading that message about him."